Panning for Gold

Rumors out of northern California claimed that gold lined the streambeds there. All a man needed was a pick, a shovel, and a pan to break up the soil and sediment and wash away everything but the gold. Some prospectors brought their tools with them. Others fell victim to inventors and hucksters selling “improvements” on standard mining equipment.

Miner’s scale

This compact scale and set of weights was manufactured especially for California-bound miners.

Miner’s pan

Gift of George W. Sims


California Gold-Finder

Gold finders, gold washers, and other spurious devices were advertised widely to lure gullible gold-seekers.

New York Daily Tribune, January 18, 1849

Courtesy of the Sacramento Archives and Museum Collection Center

From Le Charivari, June 25, 1850.

Courtesy of the California Historical Society


Builder’s half hull model of clipper ship Young America

Built by William Webb in 1853

Gift of William P. Pattee

A Clipper Ship

In the early 1850s, the immensely valuable trade with China for spices, tea, and other high-profit cargoes put a premium on speed, even at the cost of cargo capacity. British and American shipbuilders answered with clipper ships—long, narrow vessels with towering masts and clouds of canvas. They were the fastest commercial sailing vessels ever built. This ship, the Young America, was built to capitalize on the California gold rush. It sailed for 34 years, rounding Cape Horn about 50 times.

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Extreme clipper ship Challenge

Built at New York City by William H. Webb, 1851

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The Challenge

At the height of the gold rush, a prominent trading company challenged New York shipbuilder William Webb to build the world’s largest and fastest sailing ship. His answer was the Challenge, launched in 1851 and briefly the largest ship afloat. For the maiden voyage, the owners offered Capt. Robert Waterman a $10,000 bonus if he could sail to San Francisco in less than the record time of 90 days. Thwarted by violent weather, the Challenge took 108 days.